Sunday, January 30, 2022

Rock Watch: The Nowhere Inn (2021)

Watched:  01/29/2022
Format:  Hulu
Viewing:  First
Director:  Bill Benz

Rock stardom in the modern era is not what I think it was 30 years ago.  Sure, there are acts that can fill a stadium these days, but in the age of splintered genres, channels, modes of consuming music, etc...  when is someone "famous" as a musician or band?

The Nowhere Inn (2021) is a very small film that can very much feel like Annie Clark (aka: St. Vincent/ aka: Annie Clark) and Carrie Brownstein fucking around with a budget and telling a rock-and-roll fable that falls somewhere between Ziggy Stardust and Lynch and/ or a dozen other "identity" films.  That's not to say it isn't a watchable and interesting film, but it flits between "I feel like I've seen this before", "Oh, this is a very fun bit", and "people are assuming I know a lot more about Carrie Brownstein and Annie Clark's lives than I do".  

I genuinely cannot remember seeing a movie before that seemed so unclear on the idea that movies are a mass medium and need to contain everything the viewer needs to know - making references to information I'd be lost without from interviews I glanced at between 6 months and 4 years ago is... a choice.  

In no way am I saying St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein aren't famous.  They are, and they have devoted fans.  But they aren't exactly Paul McCartney, or any of a hundred or thousand celebrities whose lives I know about whether I want to or not.  But maybe they're as famous as you get as a musician in 2022 without becoming Beyonce?  I literally don't know.  I'm just not sure I can hold up a picture of Carrie Brownstein to someone on the street and they know who I'm showing them.  Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney fans feel like a circle on the ol' Venn Diagram.  St. Vincent is not competing with Ariana Grande.

Ignoring all that, the film is basically about Brownstein trying to make a documentary about Annie Clark - the woman behind St. Vincent the stage persona - and finding her pal Annie is not great on camera.  She's too laid-back and retiring.  She plays card games and goes to bed after her shows.  During the day, she preps for her shows.  Not exactly high-stakes drama.  

Brownstein begins pushing Annie to be more St. Vincent on camera, and we spend *a lot* of time watching that not work.  Meanwhile, we see one example of Annie having a bad interaction with a reporter/ fan, which I guess is supposed to be representative of her everyday, and - , unsure of what anyone wants, she embraces the full St. Vincent persona in response.  There is no Annie anymore.

Here, things take a turn for the surreal as Brownstein tries to keep up, recover the Annie she knew, and stay intact herself.

Clark isn't a widely experienced actor, but she's got charisma is spades and has always known how to command a camera (go back and watch her videos).  Giant black eyes like a Margaret Keane painting and amazing cheekbones do not hurt as we jump between Clark's natural warm and nicely geeky persona and that of art-object St. Vincent.*  Brownstein we know from Portlandia, and she's simply playing herself - so it would seem weird to criticize her in the role.  

The film wants to explore fame, friendship, artifice, art, performance vs. reality, and what we may be avoiding in our lives by taking on those roles.  But that's a pretty specific thing to people who make their living on the stage, and who have made specific choices.  So... it's interesting but not particularly accessible.  In many ways, it winds up feeling like a conversation between the two leads and their peers and the rest of us can just watch.  And that's fine, but it basically makes the film something of interest to folks already sold on St. Vincent (while arguably telling fans to not get too close).  

There are some genuinely very good bits.  I adored the sections once St. Vincent takes over where she takes Brownstein to meet her "Texas family", and the final ten minutes or so fully embrace the power of film as visual storytelling (I am hesitant to make too many David Lynch comparisons, but feel I probably should). 

Released during the pandemic, this movie absolutely tanked at the box office, but is on Hulu, which is about right.  If you like St. Vincent, it's essential.  If you don't - it's not boring!  It's got some good bits.  Dakota Johnson is pretty funny.  

Here's my notes:  

The opening scene makes no sense in the context of the rest of the film, or at least I have to work too hard to figure out what that was about while I wait for that scene to insert itself into the rest of the film.  

Also:  while I know it would have mostly cut Brownstein, I wonder if the film would have been more powerful as found-footage/ a faux-documentary.  We're too much outside the lens of the camera that Brownstein is concerned with and we can see all the mechanics of what's happening to Annie from the less interesting angle.  

*Maxwell and I saw St. Vincent a few years back when she was starting the tour included in the film, and when she broke from the vinyl-clad rock sex goddess bit to do banter, it wasn't alarming, but it did create some curious dissonance.  

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